My friend Amy joined the US army to fight a war. She graduated from college with a degree in Biblical Studies, then decided to go to Iraq to fight for American values. That was in 2004.
When she got to Iraq after being trained as a linguist, she saw something she did not at all expect: human beings, an occupation, and murder. “I helped to kill innocent women and children” she told me. “I dehumanized myself as much as anything else.”
In 2007 while in Iraq, Amy started reading feminist literature. As a woman steeped in a male-dominated world of violence and oppression, feminism must have struck a chord. As Amy read, she started noticing the way she was changing emotionally and intellectually.
Amy decided to apply for Conscientious Objector status. She spent a week in between shifts, mortar attacks and guard duties trying to put into words exactly how, why, and when she had become opposed to violence. Never having loaded, much less having fired her M-4 rifle, it never occurred to her to turn the weapon in to her commander along with the CO packet when she was finished. In fact, a soldier without a weapon in Iraq is trouble waiting to happen: you can’t even get in to the mess-hall without one.
Because of this oversight, her commander turned down Amy’s request for CO status. Amy couldn’t really be opposed to violence if she carried a rifle slung on her back, could she? The army was not willing to give up a good linguist for some conscientious abstraction when they needed bodies so badly. So Amy was punished and berated by her comrades. She was mocked and ridiculed by the men in her unit. Her moral standing had come full-circle; the freedom she had joined to protect was now being denied to her. The day her unit returned from Baghdad to Fort Hood, Texas, she left. She deserted. She went AWOL.
“They told me that my unit was scheduled to go back before my time was up,” she explained. “It was either re-up for a different station, or spend another 15 months in Iraq.”
Amy made a decision to go AWOL. It was a decision made not out of fear, but out of courage. She simply refused to participate in something she considered to be immoral. A young, beautiful woman with an intellect to match, Amy now chooses to hide in anonymity rather than to turn herself in and be readmitted into a system full of implicit and explicit violence. She cannot drive, rent housing, keep a bank account or phone, or visit her family. But what Amy lacks in lifestyle choices, she more than makes up for in integrity. “Not hurting people is worth it” she claims.
That any human being should be faced with the choice of abandoning their family for the sake of another, is an affront to the concepts which the military claims they are defending. The idea that 16 and 17-year-old boys and girls are signing one-way, unbreakable contracts with the government to participate in activities that they may later find unthinkable is despicable. That the military refuses Conscientious Objector status to anyone is contrary to the conception of an all-volunteer military.
When the city of Bellingham, Washington, held a public forum last month to discuss the issue of “sanctuary” for AWOL soldiers, several hundred angry conservatives showed up. The Whatcom County Republicans issued a fierce attack on AWOL soldiers, branding them as cowards and degenerates. Several veterans’ groups also made derogatory claims, and there was a large banner which read “NO SANCTUARY FOR TRAITORS!” It is clear to me that none of these people have ever met Amy or the thousands of human beings in her position. Neither have these angry patriots the intellectual capacity to understand something as simple as the concept of Honor.
“What kind of honor is it that I am supposed to adhere to?” Amy asks us. “Killing people against my will and better judgment?”
It saddens me beyond words to think that the bravery that Amy has shown—the willingness to live by her moral judgment—is not only disregarded by conservative militarists around the country, but labeled as traitorous. Far from it: Amy has more honor, courage, brains and emotional capacity than those jingoists who pretend that war is anything more than ceremonial murder.
The men and women who go AWOL for conscientious reasons are heroes, and they deserve to be honored. We need to stand up in our communities to challenge the outdated perceptions of honor, courage and sacrifice which enslave the best and brightest of our youth to a ball and chain in the name of freedom. We need to protect deserters, not hunt them.
EVAN KNAPPENBERGER is an Iraq War veteran and a Davis-Putter Scholar living in Bellingham, Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org